“Visible”

            I have eyes that work—basically—when equipped with contacts or glasses. Lately, the close-up vision is getting a bit fuzzy. Probably time for bifocals. Despite the fact that I can see, I am reminded from time to time of all that I don’t see. For instance, I never would have noticed the couple sleeping in their no-longer-running car parked somewhere in this neighborhood, except that they came and knocked on the church door. Meeting them, and hearing their story, I saw my own blindness. I realized—as I often do in these kinds of encounters—how much my view of life is colored by my circumstances. I eat plentiful meals. They were opening cold cans of chili. I sleep in a warm bed. All night long, they shivered with cold and fear of being discovered. I have meaningful work and a strong safety net: family, friends and community to help me through hard times. They are caught in a terrible cycle of insecurity. How do you find and keep a job when you don’t have transportation or appropriate clothes to wear to work? How do you move toward establishing a home with no job, and no money? In moments like these, I see my blindness; my privilege.

And I recognize that privilege is a kind of insulating layer that warps my view of the world. It is an unconscious assumption that everyone enjoys the kind of security and stability I have. It informs my prejudicial assumptions about why people don’t succeed. It interferes with my ability to be empathetic, and dulls my sense of urgency.

            Today’s Gospel story begins quite simply. With earthy elements—spit, dirt, certifiably holy water from the pool of Siloam—Jesus gives sight to a blind man. But the restoration of the man’s physical vision is not really the point. The author of this story is much more interested in revealing the blindness that afflicts the seeing, one step at a time. Step one: the man’s neighbors and friends can’t see him. They talk about him as if he isn’t sitting there. “Is that the same guy?” they ask themselves. “No, it just looks like him,” they answer themselves. Meanwhile, throughout this circular conversation the man keeps insisting, “I’m the guy!” but they don’t even seem to hear him.

With a beautiful analogy, Pastor Robert Hoch compares the experience of the formerly blind man to that of people living with Alzheimer’s disease. He writes:

Michele M. Bilyeu is a textile artist in Salem, Oregon, who uses her medium to undermine our understanding of those who suffer with Alzheimer’s disease. She entitles one piece, Mama’s Brain’s Got Tangles…But Mama’s Still Inside. “Like my mother’s memory,” Bilyeu remarks, “this art quilt consists of many layers, tangles, and threads…with spots of clarity and light hidden amidst the colorful (but often chaotic) surface layer.” That “surface layer” seemed to define the blind man for the surrounding community. To be sure, the blind man lived in a community, but it is striking how little his neighbors knew about him or even of him. They saw mostly his condition. And yet when he says, “I am the man,” it seems they only hear their own doubts, their own circumscribed realities.” [1]

            Step two in the revelation of the blindness of those who see: enter the religious leaders. They interview the man, too, and he points again to Jesus as his healer. They are confused and divided. Is Jesus a sinner who breaks the law? Or a prophet who reveals the presence of God? Like the neighbors and friends of the formerly blind man, the religious leaders, too, dismiss him as an unreliable witness. They turn to his parents, who insist, “he can speak for himself.” The parents recognize that their son’s blindness has led the community to treat him as if he was invisible. But the man insists on telling his truth, with a voice that continues to grow stronger and more assured. Finally, he proclaims with authority: “God does not listen to sinners. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

            At this moment, the religious leaders had a choice. They could have set aside their defensiveness and pride, opened their eyes, and seen their own blindness. Let’s leave some space for the human reality that change, or conversion, usually takes time. Maybe someday they did gain their sight. But in this moment, they resist the man’s truth. They shut him up and shut him down. “Are you trying to teach us? You who were born entirely in sin?” “Are you trying to teach us?” With these words, they reveal that they have no idea what sin really is. They see physical blindness as evidence of sin, as a punishment sent from God. But in fact, it is their spiritual blindness that is the sin. Their sin is the invalidation of another human being’s sacred worth. This sin is so ingrained in their being that it has become invisible to them. They cannot see it. Just like I so often can’t see my privilege.      During this week’s discussion with the Lenten group I’m leading about immigration, we read some pieces about the NAFTA trade agreement. Diane and Susie from the MN Conference UCC Immigration team, also talked about NAFTA a couple of weeks ago in their 2nd Hour presentation. Here’s a key excerpt from a fact sheet we read by “Public Citizen”:

Immigration from Mexico to the United States was stable before NAFTA was implemented. Millions of Mexican families lived in rural villages farming plots of land, called ejidos, hat had been made available through the Mexican Revolution’s land reforms. This land could not be sold or seized for debt. But NAFTA required changes to the Mexican Constitution to allow sale and consolidation of this land into large farms that could be purchased by foreign firms. At the same time, NAFTA eliminated Mexico’s tariffs on corn. Before NAFTA, Mexico only imported corn when a drought or other problems left domestic supplies short. After NAFTA slashed Mexico’s corn tariffs, but left U.S. farm subsidies intact, imported U.S. corn flooded Mexican markets. Within several years, the price paid to Mexican farmers for the corn they produced plummeted by 66 percent, forcing many to abandon farming…. As jobs disappeared and wages sank, many of these rural Mexicans emigrated, swelling the ranks of the 12 million illegal immigrants living incognito and competing for low-wage jobs in the United States. More than 2.5 million Mexicans lost their livelihoods to NAFTA farm imports from the United States.[2]

            Learning about the effects of NAFTA left many in the small group sad, angry and enlightened. We saw the spiritual blindness of our nation’s policies. With our trade agreements, we drive indigenous farmers from their land and livelihoods, their families and communities. Then through our immigration system, we criminalize these same people simply for seeking work that will allow them to survive. Our nation’s policy toward immigrants is sinful; it denies the sacred worth of our fellow human beings. In the course of our learning, we have also begun to see our own blindness. We are asking ourselves, why is it that, until now, we have not known, or understood this? What will we do now that our eyes have been opened?

In our small group on immigration, we always seem to end up in the same place: wondering where there is hope, how God is present, and at work. Similarly, in this morning’s scripture, Jesus withdraws after he restores the blind man’s sight. He is silent, seemingly absent from the dehumanizing debate that swirls around the man. It is not until after the community drives him out of the temple that Jesus makes his presence known again. He meets the man in his moment of rejection, and he tells him—within the hearing of the friends, neighbors and religious leaders who have refused to see him—“I came into this world so that those who do not see may see, and those who have sight may become blind.” Blindness is not the problem, not really. Pretending that we can see when we cannot, like the religious leaders, is a problem. Choosing not to see when we can see, like the man’s friends, is a problem. Our journey toward true sight—insight—God’s sight—begins only when we see our own blindness.

Amen.

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1985

[2] www.citizen.org/documents/ImmigrationFactSheetFinal011309.pdf